Devon, PA.  Newsweek listed Grand Rapids as one of America’s top-ten dying cities sometime ago.  This prompted the city to come together in a rather inspired way to film a ten-minute, one-camera-shot lip-synch music video that bobs and weaves through the downtown area while thousands of Grand Rapidians sing along.  The technical achievement alone makes it worth a look (my daughter found the timing of fireworks set off on a distant bridge to correspond with the lyrics especially pleasing).  But there is something gorgeous about the whole project.  ABC’s report on the film and its background can be read here.  But what really commands attention is the video itself, which, in its appropriation of Don McLean, makes a worthy intervention in Bill Kauffman’s discussion of the official FPR anthem.

Given Newsweek’s criteria, it was easy enough to believe Grand Rapids could be considered a dying city.  Those of us from the Great Lakes states experience in a particular way that American pathology of equating material success with getting as far away from home as possible.  And those of us who stayed put (or tried to) are aware of the conditions that entails, not least of which is a sense of cultural defeatism that seems to make every effort at local revival at best a mild success.

Having said that, I find myself surprised to think of Grand Rapids in those terms.  From the time I was old enough to drive, I thought of that city as a model: walkable, full of good restaurants, minor league sports, and music; buoyed but not dominated by a large university; and politically, in line with the surrounding countryside (in contrast from, say, Ann Arbor, which is a better city still in most respects, save for its incomplete domination by the campus culture and its total domination by the expiring liberalism of the ‘sixties and the academic nihilism of the present).

Some of my happiest memories are of nights out with my (then-future) in-laws and bride at the restaurants of Grand Rapids — several of which are smart enough to vend bottles of Wyncroft from their cellar.  Indeed, on one occasion long ago, a snow storm set in just as we were finishing a round of martinis at one local watering hole.  The owner invited us back to his house and put us up for the night — which ended up being one of the first old colonial houses built in the state.

I suppose pleasant and dying are not mutually exclusive.  I shall raise a glass to Grand Rapids’ health, when I visit this July.

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James Matthew Wilson is Associate Professor in the Department of Humanities and Augustinian Traditions at Villanova University. An award-winning scholar of philosophical-theology and literature, he has authored dozens of essays, articles, and reviews on subjects ranging from art, ethics, and politics, to meter and poetic form, from the importance of local culture to the nature of truth, goodness, and beauty. Wilson is also a poet and critic of contemporary poetry, whose work appears regularly in such magazines and journals as First Things, Modern Age, The New Criterion, Dappled Things, Measure, The Weekly Standard, Front Porch Republic, The Raintown Review, and The American Conservative. He has published five books, including most recently, a collection of poems, Some Permanent Things and a monograph, The Catholic Imagination in Modern American Poetry (both Wiseblood Books, 2014). Raised in the Great Lakes State, baptised in the parish of St. Thomas Aquinas, seasoned by summers on Lake Wawasee (Indiana), and educated under the Golden Dome, Wilson is scion of a family of Hoosiers dating back to the early nineteenth century, and an offspring of Southside Chicago Poles whose tavern kept the city wet through the Depression (and prohibition) years.  He now lives under the same sentence of reluctant exile as many another native son of the Midwest, but has dug himself in for good on the margins of the Main Line in Pennsylvania with his beautiful wife, dangerous daughter, and saintly sons. For information on Wilson's scholarship and a selection of his published work, click here. See books written and recommended by James Matthew Wilson.


  1. I get that it’s the feel-good hit of the year. But have you ever actually listened to the lyrics of American Pie? They chose this as their statement of vitality? It’s about the day the music, um… died. Satan wins. Bob Dylan sold out. Everything was better in the 50s.

    It’s not a happy song at all.

    It reminds me of people who view Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” as a bookend for “Proud to Be and American.” It’s not. At all.

    Cool video. Terrible song choice.

  2. On the contrary–“American Pie” was an inspired choice. A more straightforwardly booster-ish song would have been dismissed as mere Chamber-of-Commerce propaganda. By choosing “American Pie,” with it’s rueful lyrics, Grand Rapids seems to be conceding the point made in the Newsweekly article–it’s suffering the effects of economic decline. But just as the song’s catchy tune belies the mournful lyrics, the city’s civic pride belies it’s depressed economy.

  3. The Newsweek article based its judgment purely on population declines. It’s an odd thing to get piqued at Newsweek about when it is simply reporting that Grand Rapids is, in fact, losing population. The magazine probably did itself no favors by titling the essay that way, for a declining population need not necessarily be a sign of death and decay. I could cut the population of Hope’s faculty and improve it significantly.

    As James said, the city has a lot going for it. Those of us who live here are happy to call it home. But I was reminded of the scene in “Roger and Me” when the citizens of Flint get together to burn copies of Money Magazine after it declared Flint the worst city in America. Their defense was pretty funny.

    “There’s no way on God’s green earth
    it’s the worst place to live in the country.
    A lot of people say
    there’s nothing to do in Flint. ”Ha! ” I say.
    I mean, how many cities
    have their own PGA Tour event?
    Not that many. We have one right here.
    How many cities have an air show
    the size we have?
    How many people have parks,
    rivers and trees…
    and huge colleges like this over here?
    Not that many.
    We’ve got a lot going for us,
    and don’t ever forget it.”

  4. Brilliant, I find the choice of the song actually eerie and prophetic – neither a concession nor a poor choice. Its a warning to a deracinated and fragmented country and it also points out there is more to life than material wealth.

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